Tag Archives: B-

MATCHSTICK MEN

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B-

“You’re not a bad guy–just not a very good one,” young Angela (Alison Lohman) tells her newfound father, quirky con-man Roy (Nicolas Cage), about half-way through “Matchstick Men.” It’s a remark one might alter very slightly to refer to the movie itself, one of those cinematic shell-games in which characters get scammed but the biggest con is reserved for the audience. Ridley Scott’s picture is lovingly crafted and blessed with a talented cast and a reasonably amusing script. In the final analysis, however, in spite of its many strengths the film winds up less clever than it obviously thinks it is (in retrospect, there are a lot of holes in the scenario); the result exudes a smugness it doesn’t entirely earn.

The plot is actually pretty simple. Roy (Nicolas Cage) is a veteran con artist working with a young protégé named Frank (Sam Rockwell) in L.A. Some emotional problems lead him to a psychologist (Bruce Altman) who suggests that his difficulties might derive from his abandonment of a pregnant girlfriend fourteen years earlier. The revelation leads Roy to reconnect with his hitherto unknown daughter Angela (Alison Lohman), to whom he quickly becomes so attached that he decides to leave the profession. But before retiring, he agrees to pull one last, large job with Frank–the fleecing of a shady businessman (Bruce McGill) in a currency-exchange scam; and circumstances bring Angela into the scheme as well. To say much more would spoil the surprises in Nicholas and Ted Griffin’s script (based on a book by Eric Garcia). Suffice it to say that though “Matchstick Men” veers from “Sting” territory into domestic drama as the story progresses, there are twists and turns still to come to return it to its roots. Indeed, when the big shocker arrives, some in the audience may feel that, after the emotional investment they’ve made in the family side of the story, they’re the marks in a crueler con than any played on characters in the movie. It also has to be said that a great many viewers are likely to have spotted the switcheroo long before it’s revealed, and that Scott’s staging of the revelation is so heavy-handed and protracted that he seems to be under the impression that the audience will be too dense to comprehend it without directorial italics.

What distinguishes the picture isn’t so much the plot, in any event, as the colorful touches added to it. Most significant is the characterization of Roy, who’s presented as a walking compendium of phobias and tics. In playing these, Cage goes well beyond the oddness he radiated in “Adaptation,” or even “Leaving Las Vegas.” Indeed, you’d have to go back to “Vampire’s Kiss” to find him chewing the scenery with such comic ferocity. In that picture, however, Cage was transformed from an ordinary fellow into a kind of human gargoyle; here the development is reversed, and not nearly as amusing. The problem is that as he’s portrayed at first, Roy is less a real character than a convenient literary cliche; while we might be tickled to watch him go through his neurotic rituals–like compulsively opening and closing a door three times before going through it or obsessing over crumbs on the carpet–ultimately the guy has no dramatic weight. Cage does the shtick expertly, of course, but that’s really all it amounts to: a flashy, theatrical turn. A similar problem afflicts Rockwell. He’s playing a type–the affably grubby, slightly goofy sidekick–and he does it well enough, but that’s all there is. (Frank is another of his “breakthrough” roles that seem fated not to break through; Rockwell has been extremely unlikely in that regard.) Lohman, on the other hand, impresses again as a promising young talent, just as she did in “White Oleander.” And, of the trio, Angela is probably the most rounded and realistic figure, too. Though the picture is essentially a three-character piece, Altman has a suitably smooth demeanor as the helpful shrink, and McGill is appropriately snarly as the rich target.

“Matchstick Men” looks great–production designer Tom Foden and cinematographer John Mathieson have fashioned a sleek vision that’s maintained throughout, with an almost metallic surface emphasizing glistening but desaturated greens and blues. The soundtrack, featuring tunes by Sinatra, Bobby Darin and Wayne Newton, is also effective in establishing a loose, hip mood presumably intended to evoke the lighthearted Rat Pack caper movies of an earlier era that this one is trying to emulate. But the hard truth is that those pictures weren’t terribly good; and though “Matchstick Men” (like Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven,” which also attempted to recapture their coolness in modern dress) is substantially better–eye-catching and moderately enjoyable–in the final analysis it’s as slickly vacuous as Cage’s extravagantly showy performance is.

THE BATTLE OF SHAKER HEIGHTS

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As those of us who watched the second season of the “Project Greenlight” series know, the real battle of “Shaker Heights” was fought not on screen but in the editing room, where neophyte directors Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle were compelled by pressure from the Miramax marketing team to tone down their movie’s dramatic elements and play up its comedic ones. The power struggle between creative freedom and corporate decision-making was but the last element in a process that had already radically altered the script by Erica Beeney that won the Greenlight contest in a field of 7,000 submissions. Watching the process play itself out, courtesy of the HBO cameras, was fascinating. It lacked the catastrophic dimensions of the first season, which focused on the making of the all-too-clearly doomed “Stolen Summer,” but in its quieter way it was more interesting, because the outcome was more in doubt.

What’s the result? Happily, “The Battle of Shaker Heights” is a more professional product than “Summer” was. It’s structurally ragged and tonally shaky, if you’ll pardon the pun–but one could have predicted that from the rushed shooting schedule and frantic post-production process. It’s also half-hearted, proving soft and flabby beneath a purportedly edgy exterior. But though slight and rather frail, it’s still modestly entertaining, a near-miss rather than an outright flop. The script possesses a fair percentage of clever lines, Rankin and Potelle do a slick if not terribly stylish job, the technical contributions are adequate, and the running-time mercifully (some would say absurdly) brief. Best of all, it’s blessed with a solid cast, and in particular an engaging lead performance. Shia LaBeouf proves that his turn in “Holes” was no fluke: he makes protagonist Kelly Ernsweiler, a low-rent Holden Caulfield type with loads of teen angst and an abrasive smart-aleck streak, a charmingly disheveled kid, whose nervy precociousness is somehow endearing rather than irritating. With someone else in the part, Kelly might well have become insufferable even over this picture’s mere 78 minutes; but LaBeouf not only compels your attention but retains your sympathy even when you find the character’s behavior trying or ridiculous.

Kelly is a nerdy, wisecracking seventeen-year old with an unhappy home life: his mother (Kathleen Quinlan) is a painter of dubious skill who turns out canvases for “starving artist” sales, and his father (William Sadler) a recovering drug addict whom the boy bitterly blames for his past years of inattention and wastrel’s ways. Kelly’s obsessive outlet is participating in the re-enactment of military battles, a pastime that makes him contemptuous of his mediocre history teacher and an object of bullying by the teacher’s hotshot son Lance (Billy Kay). But his hobby wins him a friend in fellow re-enactor Bart (Elden Henson), who’s from a rich Shaker Heights family, and together they mount a complicated act of revenge against Lance. Kelly also falls for Elden’s older sister Tabby (Amy Smart), and dreams that she’ll break off her engagement to a handsome nonentity (Anson Mount) in favor of him. One can guess miles ahead what’s going to emerge from all this. Kelly will reconnect with his parents, overcoming his anger toward his father during a time of family crisis; he’ll accept the pointlessness if his feud with Lance; and he’ll comes to terms with the impossibility of going off into the sunset with Tabby, finally recognizing the absolute rightness of linking up instead with Sarah (Shiri Appleby), the sweet fellow grocery-store worker and classmate who’s been pining after him unnoticed for months. It would have been nice if one’s expectations had been disappointed in one or another of these areas. Sadly, that is not to be.

There are a great many problems with “Shaker Heights.” The overarching conceit of the picture–a kid who participates in mock battles battling toward maturity–is more than a bit precious, and a good many of its elements have a John Hughesy quality to them. The shifts in tone between comedy and melodrama aren’t adroitly handled, either, particularly in the latter reels. (Even within individual scenes, the twists are sometimes forced. In one episode, Kelly starts out drunk, suddenly seems to sober up, and then is abruptly out of it again.) Still, the picture nearly overcomes the hurdles even though it can’t escape predictability. LaBeouf is the main reason: he brings intelligence and charm to scenes that could easily have set one’s teeth on edge. He’s especially winning when playing against Henson and Appleby, both of whom are excellent. Ray Wise also contributes an amusing turn as Bart’s dad; a sequence in which he enthuses over his latest hobby–collecting nesting-dolls–is delightful, though another–a dinner episode–is clumsy. The domestic side of Kelly’s life, unfortunately, is less effectively handled. Quinlan and Sadler are fine, but their characters aren’t fleshed out fully enough to be compelling. (The decision to emphasize comedy over drama in the final cut obviously has a good deal to do with that.) Another problem is that though Smart is very attractive, the supposed electricity between Tabby and Kelly never takes hold. And all the material involving Lance is much too broad: Kay, who was so effective in “L.I.E.,” is a caricature here. The upshot is that while parts of the film have a modest charm (and LaBeouf is well worth watching throughout), as a whole it comes across as lumpish and squishy. If one were to rewrite things completely, he might suggest that a harsher, unsentimental approach, rigorously maintained throughout, would have resulted in a much better, more challenging piece.

But that’s not what “The Battle of Shaker Heights” was ever meant to be, as a reading of the original script (available on the Project Greenlight website) attests; the picture is no bastardization of a masterpiece. One of the best things about the whole enterprise, in fact, is that it allows a comparison of the original screenplay with what emerged after all the rewriting and revision depicted in the series. For this viewer, at least, most of the changes are defensible, and in some cases clearly beneficial. A lot of the deleted material was extraneous, and many of the new bits are improvements, even if they don’t always play perfectly. (See, for instance, Wise’s big solo moment, or the episode involving the revenge on Lance, which is better in the film than in the script, though still not quite worked out.) Beeney would probably disagree, but it’s doubtful that a straight filming of her work would have been preferable to this, even if the finished product remains seriously flawed. Of course, one of the pleasures of the whole Greenlight operation is that it affords the opportunity to debate such matters. One thing is sure, though: she could hardly have asked for a better Kelly than LaBeouf, changes or no.